Archive for February, 2017

In All Honesty

 

It was a breathtaking piece of jewellery. Fashioned out of diamonds imported from South Africa, set in Antwerp, commissioned by a minor Indian prince for his paramour, in the 19th century. A pair of earrings that had changed hands (or ears, if you will) many, many times before reaching the confines of a glass display at Osian’s Auction house in Mumbai. It was on display until tomorrow, and then it was going to be auctioned off.

 

Mrs Indra Chopra was a patron of the auction house. She was a kind-hearted socialite with a wealthy husband. She came from humble origins, and from the time her husband had struck gold, she had developed a tendency to showiness. Along with this, she had further indulged in an already marked instinct to hoard. When she was poorly off, she had collected Papier Mache figurines and magazines. After her accession to Society, she collected jewelry and art.

 

Today, she pottered around Osian’s, looking at the pieces on display. Really, she was glad she had discovered Osian’s..her living room was coming along quite nicely. Why, it might even give a museum a run for its money! Look at that pretty wooden elephant ..she had bought a bigger one last year. Maybe she should buy this one too and have them stand next to each other. She made a note of that and moved on.

 

Here were some long-limbed African tribal figures with thick hoops hanging around their neck and hands and what not.. She had never understood why these figures were such a big hit..though she had caved to peer pressure and bought a pair of them last year (and put it up on the highest shelf of the showcase where she didn’t have to look at it).

 

Suddenly, the world swirled around her and she was transfixed. In front of her were the most gorgeous, most spectacular, most perfect earrings she had ever set eyes on. A wave of craving crashed over her, a craving that she had never felt before. In a moment, she was abjectly in love and the spirits of obsessed collectors over the centuries seemed to be goading her on. She had to own those earrings.

 

 

 

The ceiling was resplendent with the intersecting lights and shadows of many chandeliers. The room beneath was not far behind in splendor – a riot of gold, diamonds and gems ensconced in the arms and necks and ears of Mumbai’s well-heeled. It was the birthday dinner of an industrialist who liked being rich and made no effort to cloak the sentiment. Indra entered the hall in a daze, acutely aware of her earrings and how beautiful they must be looking, and aware of very little besides.

 

However, she came to herself within a few minutes. ‘Look at you strutting around like a peacock! You look more like a fat pig in a fancy dress competition that anything else, you know’, said a Mrs Sharma, a distant acquaintance.

 

Indra almost jumped in horror.

 

‘Me…Wh..whaat?’ she stammered.

 

‘Yes, that’s right. Don’t look so surprised. Did you look in the mirror before you left the house?’ said Mrs Sharma, with a pleasant smile on her face.

 

Indra was not equipped to deal with conversation of this kind. She gasped a little as she tried to think of an appropriate rejoinder to that comment, and when she couldn’t, she sidled away. The gall of that woman!  She’d make sure she told her friends how rude Mrs Sharma was..though of course, she wouldn’t get into specific details.

 

She was more than a little shook up when she saw her friend Mrs Aparna Mahadevan approach. She felt a mite relieved. She’d tell Aparna about it, and possibly feel better afterwards. And at least she could work in some conversation about her earrings. That Mrs Sharma hadn’t given her the chance.

 

‘There you are’, said Aparna. ‘ I told you we’d come here together, but you hurried off. I guess you couldn’t wait to show off’, she smiled indulgently.

 

‘You know..those earrings are pretty. But they don’t look so good on you. With a chin like yours, chins actually, hehe, you can’t put off all this delicate airy stuff. You should wear something solid and big and gold.’

 

Indra felt light-headed. Aparna and she were as close as any two people in their circles, and she could stand a jibe from Aparna..but this was going too far! That too, coming from Aparna, who had always been a staunch supporter of her fashion choices.

 

‘Aparna, really? I thought you liked my taste’, said Indra, slow tears streaming down her face.

 

Mrs Mahadevan looked puzzled. She drew Indra aside, held her hand, and said in a comforting voice, ‘What happened now? God, Indra, you’re melodramatic as hell. Always fussing about something or the other!’.

 

Through her tears, Indra looked at Aparna, and was suddenly hit by the consciousness that something very odd was happening. Aparna’s face looked reassuring, her voice sounded reassuring, but she was saying these awful things! Was Aparna a little unhinged today?

 

She drew back from Aparna. She had had enough crazy conversation for one night. She stepped out of the hall and tried to calm down by striding up and down the corridor.

 

A waiter passed by her. Smiling, he said, ‘Good evening ma’am’. And then, as he walked away, he muttered quite audibly, ‘Wow, those earrings are something! I wish I could get something pretty for Poornima, just for once’.

 

Indra was past trying to understand. A waiter had just commented on her earrings in her hearing!

 

Hearing!! A nebulous thought made her run back to the hall. She walked around the hall, taking care to avoid conversation, just hovering around people and moving away before they could spot her.

 

‘Yeah, you came by that money honestly, I don’t think!’

 

‘I look so under-dressed next to her! I would kill for her figure!’

 

‘God, this party is so boring. I want to go home and sleep!’

 

‘How can he go on and on about his dog like that? There should be a law against it.’

 

‘Is she prettier than I am? I am fairer..but has such a nice nose. My nose is just a stub.’

 

Her ears rang with naked, brutal, uncivilized conversations. Indra was genuinely spooked now. She realized what was happening. She was hearing what people were thinking, not what they were saying! She sought her husband as a last recourse. Her eyes darted around the hall, and she saw him talking to a group of dapper men.

 

She ran towards him. She saw his eyes widen as she approached. ‘Oh God, make her go away. She’ll come and say something stupid to my friends, I just know it!’ said her husband. Indra froze, stung beyond words. So that was how Prem felt about her! She had wondered sometimes.

 

She changed her mind about telling her husband. She walked away, leaving an open-mouthed Prem in her wake. She couldn’t stand it here anymore. Everything was so stifling, so horrible! She left a message for Prem saying she was going home, and called her driver. She reached home, took off her precious earrings as though in a dream, took a sleeping pill and went straight to bed.

 

 

 

 

Aparna came home next afternoon, just as she was waking up.

 

‘Why did you vanish like that yesterday’, demanded Aparna. I was talking to you and you just shot off!’.

 

‘I was just tired. Aparna, what did you think of my earrings yesterday? Do you think a person with a chin like mine can pull off wearing such delicate stuff? Or do you think I had better stick to traditional gold?’ asked Indra.

 

Aparna turned a pale color, but she said readily, ‘No, I think it looked lovely on you! There’s nothing wrong with your chin, why do you worry so much about it!’.

 

Indra strained her ears and listened hard. No, that was it. No insults forthcoming. She sighed and leaned back.

 

‘Indra, can I try it on just once?’, asked Aparna.

 

‘Ok.’ Indra waved a weary hand and heaved herself up to fetch the earrings.

 

Aparna walked to the ornate oval mirror in the hall that just somehow made one look prettier. She wore the earrings, and she was turning this way and that and preening. Suddenly, she heard a loud guffaw behind her.

 

‘You think it didn’t look good on me? Well, well, look at you!’ said Indra.

 

Aparna whirled around.

 

‘What did you mean by that? When did I say it didn’t look good on you?’, she snapped.

 

‘What did I mean by what?’, said a hapless Indra. What was happening to her? Every conversation she had was going awry. She’d just asked Aparna to screw on the earrings tighter.

 

And then it dawned on her.

 

‘Quick, Aparna, give me the earrings!’, she said. Aparna gave them to her, a little dazed herself. Indra wore them, and looked at Aparna expectantly.

 

‘How rude of you to snatch it like that! Really Indra, you’re the limit. Sometimes I don’t know why I put up with you’, Aparna was saying.

 

Indra felt like she had just solved a murder mystery! She plonked down, limp and light-headed. The earrings were doing it! They were letting her hear people’s thoughts. She shuddered.

 

A memory came back to her. Of the auctioneer saying that the earrings were rumored to be cursed. Nothing dangerous – none of its owners had died or been dogged by obvious bad luck. But almost everybody who had possessed it had sold it within a year – so it was generally assumed that there was something the matter with it. Indra had barely paid attention then.

 

The earrings were back at Osian’s. Such was her love for them that Indra had decided to keep them in her showcase instead of wearing them. But it had been too much to bear. Every time she had looked at them, a macabre voice had gone off in her head and replayed that awful night. She had held out for a week, and then she had taken them to Osian’s and begged them to buy it back. Her collector’s spirit was quite subdued for the moment – for the first time ever, she had left Osian’s empty-handed.

It was a testament to their codependence that Indra and Aparna were on talking terms within a week, and bosom friends again within the month. But it was a long time before Indra managed to forget. When friends complimented her about her appearance or her accessories or her beloved showcase, she had taken to asking in a pitiful, eager voice, ‘Really? Do you really think that?’

 

Meanwhile, the earrings twinkled placidly in their glass cage, waiting for their next owner.

A Scandal in Adyar

 

It is a Saturday afternoon and an important council is in progress at 1/15, Kasturibai Nagar, Adyar, Chennai. An angry quiet hangs over the room.

 

‘Prasanna confirmed it one year ago’, starts Venkataraman, slicing the silence with a tremor in his voice. ‘When did you know?’

 

‘Karthi told us two years back’, says Krishnan.

 

‘What, two years! You couldn’t drive some sense into him in two years?’, says Venkataraman.

 

‘You know how boys are these days’, flares Mrs Krishnan.

‘It’s not like you have been able to change Prasanna’s mind!’

 

Two years back, Krishnan and Venkataraman had been thick friends who spent Sunday evenings together, sipping their filter coffee and telling each other their opinions on world problems.

 

But when the first rumours began to float around, that changed. And after their wives had had a verbal spat where each accused the other’s son of being a ‘bad influence’ on her son, the families had been too ashamed and angry to confront each other.

 

The teenagers in the room, Nandini and Adi, exchange a glance, while a dog at Adi’s feet whimpers. Nandini’s brother, Prasanna, and Adi’s brother, Karthik, are a couple. Probably the first gay couple in the hallowed history of Kasturibai Nagar.

 

The Supreme Court of India had legalized gay marriage four years ago. Elsewhere in the country, gay marriages had begun to find acceptance amongst liberals. But here, in the heart of conservative Chennai, the idea of a same-sex relationship, much less a same-sex marriage, was still grotesque.

 

Sure, there had been whisperings of this trend spreading in Chennai too since that ill-conceived decision by the government. But so far, it hadn’t afflicted old-school, sandhyavandanam-doing, Carnatic-music-singing Adyar. Prasanna and Karthik were pioneers of a sort, and this made the shame doubly unbearable to their parents.

 

Ever since the parents had woken up to the scandal brewing in their homes, they had tried every trick conventional wisdom and Kollywood had taught them, to put an end to it.

 

They started by threatening to cut their sons off from money and property. Of course, this argument was more convincing in movies, coming from parents who were powerful business-magnates, than it was in real-life, coming from middle-class Brahmin parents who didn’t have much money or property to bequeath. They tried emotional and logical appeals, outright anger and passive aggression. But nothing seemed to move these boys.

 

Gradually, both sets of parents began to give up hope. Over the past two years, their angst had given way to a dull resignation typical of their fatalistic, non-confrontational forefathers. They pinned their hopes of restored dignity and future grandchildren on their younger kids.

 

But, just as their initial indignation was dying down, Karthik and Prasanna announced that they wanted to get married!!

 

Sure, they were polite and courteous enough as they informed their parents of this crazy notion. But, they also casually hinted that they would go ahead and get married anyways, if their parents didn’t come around within a reasonable length of time.

 

For the first time in two years, the families were calling a truce, spurred on by this new fear.

 

‘What will we do, Krishna’, sighs Venkat, in an appeal seemingly both to his erstwhile friend and the supreme Lord.

 

‘I’ve tried everything. Prasanna just won’t listen’.

 

‘Nor will Karthik. What is worse, these rascals can’t keep it under wraps’, snaps Krishnan. ‘They act like everything they’re doing is just fine. Nandini told me that they celebrated their anniversary on Besant Nagar beach last week.  Anniversary it seems..kashta kaalam!’

 

Mrs Krishnan sniffles a little.

 

‘I heard from the kid next door that Karthi put up a photo on Facebook. Of him and Prasanna, and a cake with three candles on it’.

 

‘I thought they were such good friends. Ever since we sent them off to paatu class together twenty years ago.. Where did we go wrong, Venkat? How did our children get this way’, says Krishnan.

 

 

‘Karthi tells me that there is nothing we could have done to prevent this’, says Mrs Krishnan a little defensively.  ‘He says he was born this way. It is not because of our upbringing or anything..’

 

‘Prasanna sent me links and bought me a book to read. Apparently, this..stuff was considered acceptable in Vedic times.’

 

‘I know, I know..’, shrugs Venkataraman irritably.

‘But what they are doing will never be condoned by our people. And all this love and what-the-heart-wants business is nonsense’, he says, completely forgetting the years of his youth and his passionate love for a girl he could not marry.

 

Mrs Venkataraman, a tiny, bird-like woman, voices the fear in everyone’s mind.

 

‘All that is ok. We know we can’t get them to break up or marry them off the proper way, to girls. Atleast, I’ve given up hoping for that. But what if they actually get married to each other and make it public? What if the newspaper men from Adyar Times or Dina Malar come?  Oh God, what if these boys send invitations to our relatives? I can just imagine how much damage Kamala maami alone can do! My daughter will never get married, if this abomination happens.’

 

‘Amma!’ protests Nandini. She has preserved a diplomatic stand so far, but she is wholeheartedly in favor of this wedding.  She thinks her life could do with the additional excitement it will generate, she wants her brother to be happy, and she has been harboring a secret crush on Adi for many years.

 

‘I told Karthi to go to Europe or one of those modern cities anywhere and have a live-in relationship’, said Mrs Krishnan, grimacing as she mouths the disagreeable word. ‘But he insists on getting married, and that too in India!’

 

‘You really think they will invite relatives?’, asks Krishnan, following a train of thought that has been worrying him. ‘Karthik always bails out of family functions. I don’t think he knows his relatives by sight, forget knowing their addresses or phone numbers.’

 

‘I don’t know about Karthik, but Prasanna seems to have decided that his wedding should spark off some new kind of social revolution. He actually told me that he wanted to inspire other gay couples in Chennai to break free of their shackles’, says Venkataraman.

 

Adi stifles a guffaw. His brother has to make a big production out of everything!

 

‘If he sends out invites to all and sundry, I’ll bet they’ll all come, just out of spite and curiosity’, continues Venkataraman.

 

There is a pregnant silence as four mild, unassuming people who have shied away from drama of any sort their entire lives, grapple with the vision of a flamboyant wedding organized by their sons.

 

Adi, in an unusually sensitive gesture for him, goes to the kitchen and fetches a second flask of coffee for the council.

 

Krishnan leans forward.

 

‘Venkat, let’s face it, we have no choice left in this decision. But we cannot let them plan their wedding! We have to take this into our hands.’

 

The minutes tick on with the ponderousness of hours, as four people teeter on the edge of a decision that will upturn their conventional, respectable lives forever.

 

After a while, Mrs Krishnan looks around.

 

‘So, we are do.. doing this?? Iyer priest or Iyengar priest?’, she asks, in a faltering tone.

 

The dog has had enough of human nonsense for one day. She gets up and trots out.

The New Girl

Kavya walks into the big classroom, knees trembling, eyes busy scrutinising her shoes. The teacher introduces her to the class and asks her to sit down. Kavya is more than a little frightened. She has been through this before. In her previous school, she had to walk right down to the end of the classroom on her first day, and not a single girl budged. Then, the teacher had to find a place for her. The shame of it still makes her cheeks burn. Today, she walks very slowly, and to her huge relief, the girl in the third bench moves over. She plops down.

The girls around her don’t know yet, but Kavya sits alone with the knowledge that her classmates will ignore her, just like her classmates in the old school! Today, Kavya is something of a sensation, since she is new to the class. She also has the exotic appeal of a girl from another city. But Kavya knows that she will become invisible in a few days. She hunches her shoulders and shrinks a little into herself, as if to hurry up that day.

 

Later at lunch, many of the girls approach her and try to get friendly, but Kavya is tongue-tied. This ordeal shakes her, and she looks with longing at the tree in the yard outside. How much time would it take her to climb that tree and lose herself in its branches?  She has done that often in her old school, it is not that difficult really. What a shy girl at school really requires is a nice big tree with low-hanging branches that she can climb. With a book tucked in her belt. And then she can dangle her legs, read her book and watch the other kids. The real kids.  Kavya thinks of herself as a little imaginary. She is not sure that she really exists the way the others do.

 

The same evening, before her bus leaves, she examines the tree in the yard. There’s a strong branch there..and there.. and here’s one more facing the wall. Good. The old school had a hawk-like ayah who played spoilsport every time she saw Kavya on the tree. She has seen the ayah in this school, a tiny, defeated creature who seems a little scared of everybody. This ayah might just not notice it if Kavya sits on the wall-facing branch. And what’s this, a knotty bark with a couple of footholds! Not a very easy climb altogether, Kavya thinks, as she sizes it up. But Kavya is a past master in the art of tree-climbing.

 

The next morning, Kavya coaxes her dad to drop her off to school early. She says that her class teacher has arranged extra classes for her to catch up with the other kids. She gets to school and loses no time in running to the tree. A few efforts at clambering and a couple of bruises later, she settles down on the branch. And just like that, she is so relieved that it almost makes her happy.

 

That afternoon, before the other girls have been able to group around her, she has whisked off to the tree. She has balanced her lunch on one thigh and is now eating, with a book by her side. Some curious kids have noticed her already and there’s some finger-pointing happening around her. But Kavya has long since discovered safety in pretend deafness. Earlier, it used to hurt her a lot, the taunts of her old classmates and the nicknames they gave her. Monkey, chimpanzee, gorilla..that class-topper with that horrid, evil smile even called her an orangutan, and she had to look up the dictionary to learn what that was.

 

But now, the hurt has lost its sharpness. She just munches on as the other kids mutter excitedly. Judgements are flying around, and the kids are trying to decide whether Kavya’s strange tree-climbing ways are cool or uncool.

The argument in the school yard sways this way and that.

‘She doesn’t talk at all, I’m sure she is so boooring’, says the first girl.

‘She must be so brave na, to climb up that tree? I’m so scared I’ll fall..’, gushes another.

‘Do you think she can climb that tree too?’, wonders a curious soul, pointing to a coconut tree outside the school compound.

‘Let’s shake that branch and make her fall’, says the leader of the bullies.

 

And right then, Kavya’s guardian angel springs into action, and gently sighs a wish into the ears of one of the debaters.

This girl singles herself out from the huddle and comes to the tree.

‘Can I come sit with you? Can you help me climb up?’

Kavya freezes, mid-morsel. A painful gulp or two later, she says yes, because she is not used to saying no. She doesn’t really want company.
And before she quite realizes it, she has helped this other girl sit next to her on the branch. The two girls test the strength of the branch gingerly. Safety established, they gawk at each other for a few moments. Kavya offers her parathas to the other girl, in a desperate attempt to postpone interaction or avoid it altogether. But her plan backfires! This smiling girl says thanks, introduces herself, and breaks into an effortless monologue.

 

Kavya is astonished. She has already seen, even in her occasional and careless observations of her class, that this girl is popular. Why is a popular girl sitting with her on a tree and chatting? Kavya’s sense of what is fitting in this world has just been jolted rudely.

 

Even stranger things happen next. The popular girl has swayed public opinion. Many of the other kids suddenly want to climb the tree too. One more girl struggles to climb up and almost falls. In the tension of the moment, Kavya finds herself screaming instructions to the hapless girl and holding out her hand to haul her up to safety. And in the simple, black-and-white world of this primary school, this act settles the argument. The kids have decided that Kavya is cool, a brave girl who is unafraid of ayahs and unbothered by the prospect of injury.

 

A few weeks later, we see Kavya at lunch, up on the tree. She is silent, but there’s a smile playing on her face as she listens to the two girls chattering away next to her. She has left her storybook in her school bag.